Quantifying the biomass of parasites to understand their role in aquatic communities


  • Jason Lambden,

    1. Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado
    Current affiliation:
    1. Department of International Health, Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland
    Search for more papers by this author
  • Pieter T. J. Johnson

    Corresponding author
    • Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado
    Search for more papers by this author


Pieter Johnson, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Colorado, Ramaley N122, Boulder, CO 80309-0334. Tel: 303-492-5623; Fax: 303-492-8699; E-mail: pieter.johnson@colorado.edu


By infecting multiple host species and acting as a food resource, parasites can affect food web topography and contribute to ecosystem energy transfer. Owing to the remarkable secondary production of some taxa, parasite biomass – although cryptic – can be comparable to other invertebrate and vertebrate groups. More resolved estimates of parasite biomass are therefore needed to understand parasite interactions, their consequences for host fitness, and potential influences on ecosystem energetics. We developed an approach to quantify the masses of helminth parasites and compared our results with those of biovolume-based approaches. Specifically, we massed larval and adult parasites representing 13 species and five life stages of trematodes and cestodes from snail and amphibian hosts. We used a replicated regression approach to quantify dry mass and compared these values with indirect biovolume estimates to test the validity of density assumptions. Our technique provided precise estimates (R2 from 0.69 to 0.98) of biomass across a wide range of parasite morphotypes and sizes. Individual parasites ranged in mass from 0.368 ± 0.041 to 320 ± 98.1 μg. Among trematodes, adult parasites tended to be the largest followed by rediae, with nonclonal larval stages (metacercariae and cercariae) as the smallest. Among similar morphotypes, direct estimates of dry mass and the traditional biovolume technique provided generally comparable estimates (although important exceptions also emerged). Finally, we present generalized length-mass regression equations to calculate trematode mass from length measurements, and discuss the most efficient use of limited numbers of parasites. By providing a novel method of directly estimating parasite biomass while also helping to validate more traditional methods involving length-mass conversion, our findings aim to facilitate future investigations into the ecological significance of parasites, particularly with respect to ecosystem energetics. In addition, this novel technique can be applied to a wide range of difficult-to-mass organisms.